PARIS: Twelve months ago, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga sat alone inside Roland Garros’s Court Philippe Chatrier having squandered a two-set lead and four match points to Novak Djokovic in the French Open quarter-finals.
Fast forward to June 2013 and Tsonga is flashing that famous smile after a ruthless straight-sets demolition of Roger Federer to reach the semi-finals for the first time at his home Grand Slam.
But this time he was not alone. He was rejoicing in his decision to hire Australian Roger Rasheed as coach with the brief of taking the talented, if unpredictable, Tsonga to a major title after a series of near-misses.
The 44-year-old Rasheed, a former Australian Rules footballer, was a journeyman tennis pro who proved his coaching credentials with Lleyton Hewitt from 2003-2007 and then Tsonga’s compatriot, Gael Monfils, from 2008 until 2011.
When Tsonga collapsed against Djokovic, the French star was a lone wolf, having split with long-time coach Eric Winogradsky in April, 2011.
“Before I was alone, but I think it was important for me to be alone and to understand that what I’m doing, you know, I’m doing it because I like it,” said Tsonga.
“Sometimes it’s tough to have somebody with you. They expect a lot. But you don’t know if you expect the same things.”
But the 28-year-old realised that after the shattering loss to Djokovic in Paris had been followed by defeat to Andy Murray in the semi-finals at Wimbledon and a hapless second round exit to Martin Klizan at the US Open, he needed a second opinion on where his career was heading.
“I chose to take Roger because I knew this guy was able to give me the passion for the game and to give me his passion for it,” explained Tsonga.
Tsonga, who will be playing in his fifth Grand Slam semi-final when he takes on Spanish fourth seed David Ferrer on Friday, is looking to make his second final at a major following his runner-up finish to Djokovic in Australia in 2008.
Just before Tuesday’s one-sided affair, he and Rasheed studied how Rafael Nadal, who boasts a 20-10 career stranglehold over Federer, is always capable of throwing the 17-time Grand Slam title-winner off his stride.
“Make him play the wrong way,” is how Tsonga describes the conclusion.
Tsonga insists that Rasheed has taught him to be serious about his sport, which, by his own admission, was never one of his strongest character traits in his early days.
“There are many things you have to manage as a tennis player. You have to be on time for practising every day. You have to eat correctly. You have to sleep well. You need the life of a champion,” said Tsonga.
“Roger Rasheed is helping me to be more serious. He’s enthusiastic about everything, about tactics, about what is happening on the court, and also physically he’s really pushing me. He wants me to do my best every day.”
Rasheed is not the only man pushing Tsonga to succeed — he has a large proportion of the country behind him.
His defeat of Federer, who was playing in a 36th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final and had only failed to reach a semi-final at the majors four times in the last nine years, was the second-top story on French TV news bulletins.
It was topped only by a breathless account of how summer has finally arrived in the country.
The expectation is driven by the hope that Tsonga can become France’s first men’s champion at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah in 1983 — two years before the world number eight was even born.
“Everybody’s expecting a lot from me since the beginning of this tournament — not only this tournament, but every day. So I’m used to it,” he said.